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Simone Biles and Megan Rapinoe changed their sports — and their country

President Biden presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to gymnast Simone Biles. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post)

On Thursday, Simone Biles and Megan Rapinoe flanked the most dignified room in Washington.

Biles walked in first, and the smiling eyes and applauding hands of the vice president followed her to the stage. Rapinoe wore an all-white suit and sat closest to the full-length George Washington portrait. In between them on rows of gold-legged chairs sat a gathering of Firsts and Founders: to name a few, the first American to receive the coronavirus vaccination outside of clinical trials and the founder of a center defined by its constitutional education and debate.

Inside the East Room, one of the largest of the White House and still too small to host this day’s event, Biles and Rapinoe were the only two athletes among the panel of 17 awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor given to civilians.

Biden honors 17 people with Presidential Medal of Freedom

All around them were people whose life stories could fill history books about the best ideals and worst impulses witnessed in modern America. Front row, masked and resplendent in pink was Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; back row, center sat former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who had to learn to walk and talk again after being shot in the head; next to her was Laurene Powell Jobs, attending on behalf of her late husband, Steve, the co-founder of Apple.

The two athletes bookended the rows of civil rights icons and decorated politicians, and yet they blended in perfectly.

Rapinoe and Biles crashed into the nation’s conscience as Team USA athletes. In two Olympics, Biles became the most decorated American gymnast in history. Rapinoe cemented her legacy as a two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist, spreading her arms, leaning just so and striking the pose of triumph after one of her clutch goals. Their achievements on the mat, beam or pitch have changed their respective sports, but that’s not why the women were invited to the White House on Thursday.

As transcendent as they are as athletes, Rapinoe and Biles have proved to be far greater in their roles as brave and unbowed advocates.

The previous time Biles made a public appearance in Washington, she was testifying on Capitol Hill. Though it was the last place she wanted to be, Biles told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee as well as the viewing public about the emotional scars she dealt with after surviving sexual abuse from Larry Nassar, the disgraced doctor formerly affiliated with USA Gymnastics. As a testament to her greatness, Biles still stands above all other American gymnast medalists even though she added only a bronze during the 2020 Games.

In the lead-up to Tokyo, dealing with the trauma proved to be “too much,” she later said. Biles withdrew from the individual all-around competition, specifically to focus on mental health. Her choice made her more human than G.O.A.T. And sports can use more humans.

President Biden started the presentation by focusing on Biles — she had the alphabetical advantage. More than that, she has the distinction of being the youngest Medal of Freedom recipient ever at just 25 years old.

“She turned personal pain into greater purpose, to stand up and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Biden said. “Today she adds to her medal count.”

Then, reading off a prompter in the back of the room, Biden turned his attention to the first soccer player honored as a Medal of Freedom recipient.

“Where’s Megan? Megan, where are you?” Biden asked before starting his remarks. He didn’t notice the pink-haired Rapinoe sitting directly behind him, so cheeky as ever, she leaned closer and waved.

Everything about Rapinoe’s colorful hair and playful personality makes her an easy choice to pitch submarine sandwiches, vodka or credit cards. In 2021, the money from her endorsements placed her just outside the top-10-earning female athletes, according to Forbes. But while helping the U.S. women’s national soccer team remain the most dominant in the world, Rapinoe and her teammates were paid less than the men.

The national team filed a class-action lawsuit that became a six-year ordeal, and Rapinoe also took her cause to Washington. Last year, she testified on gender discrimination before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and later appeared with Biden as he signed the Equal Pay Day proclamation.

“I know there are millions of people who are marginalized by gender in the world and experience the same thing in their jobs. And I know there are people who experience even more, where the layers of discrimination continue to stack against them. And I and my teammates are here for them,” Rapinoe said during that White House event. “We on the U.S. women’s national team are here today because of them.”

In February, the U.S. women’s national team reached a settlement with the U.S. Soccer Federation for $24 million. Before he recognized this achievement, Biden made a detour into story time. He turned toward Rapinoe while recalling the excitement his granddaughter, who was a high school athlete, had over meeting her. She has punched in goals and posed like a Greek god, but for future generations, Rapinoe’s legacy will be her fierce advocacy off the field.

“She helped lead the change for perhaps the most important victory for anyone on the soccer team or any soccer team — equal pay for women,” Biden said as resounding applause broke out in the room.

The ceremony continued. Fred Gray, the attorney who represented Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the NAACP during the fight for civil rights, sat cross-legged, flashing his red socks until standing up on his own to be adorned with a medal. At 91, he still practices law. Cindy McCain dabbed at her eyes as Biden remembered her late husband, Sen. John McCain. Sandra Lindsay, the New York City nurse and vaccine advocate, reached over and placed her hand over McCain’s for comfort. And after the Gold Star father, the Catholic priest, the son of the late president of the AFL-CIO, the gymnast and the soccer player and all the others had received their medals, the president made a final declaration.

“This is America,” Biden said.

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